When something isn’t going your way, you either try to work harder to make it happen, or you try to work smarter; in the final 25 minutes against Sunderland on Saturday, Arsenal did a bit of both.
During the first 20 minutes of the second half, Arsenal took their foot off the pedal and allowed a frankly abject Sunderland side to grow into a game they should have been completely out of by half time.
After Martin Atkinson made his first correct decision of the second half awarding the hosts a penalty that Jermain Defoe duly dispatched, Arsenal teams of old would have felt sorry for themselves and wilted in this hole they’d dug themselves into.
Arsenal teams of old may have continued to try to play the same style, but substituting on different personnel who were merely different names for the same thing, rather than players whose introduction would signal a marked stylistic shift into trying something else to overcome the opposition.
It’s too soon to make sweeping statements about new dawns, but it was encouraging to not only see this Arsenal team not wilt, but to see Wenger try something different to disrupt Sunderland and re-energise Arsenal’s stuttering attack.
Chance creation wasn’t the issue on Saturday as much as profligate finishing was, and as such the decision to sacrifice Alex Iwobi for Olivier Giroud and shift Alexis Sanchez to the left was an easy one for Wenger to make. It paid immediate dividends with Arsenal shutting down any chance of a Sunderland comeback and scoring three goals of their own within nine minutes of the Frenchman’s introduction.
Iwobi himself had not been as effective as he has been in recent weeks, partly due to a less familiar relationship with his fullback, Kieran Gibbs, who was deputising for the injured Nacho Monreal. The duo have rarely played together and are understandably a considerable way off being as in sync as Ashley Cole and Robert Pires in terms of understanding one another’s supporting runs and how they prefer to combine.
One of the regrettably necessary flaws in Arsenal’s current system is that the left-back tends to get isolated when Arsenal lose the ball in the opposition half and get hit on the counter-attack. This is due to the system’s requirements for the wide left player to drift. As such, Gibbs was kept as busy defensively as Monreal has been this season for the first 65 minutes of the game. In future, adjustments could be made for the left sided of the two central midfielders to adjust their own positioning and provide additional cover.
Just as Arsenal’s left-back was given little cover, it was still a lot more than either of Sunderland’s fullbacks were afforded. None of the hosts’ wide players or midfielders provided support to the fullbacks and there were instances where Arsenal would regularly look to exploit the flanks, particularly down their own right hand side in the first half through Oxlade-Chamberlain and the supporting Bellerin, which could have led to more goals than just Alexis’ opener.
Even after the goal, Sunderland didn’t respond to the threat or adjust and Bellerin was often stood unmarked as an outlet. You got a sense that both of Arsenal’s fullbacks would be even more of an asset going forward with Giroud on the pitch, and this proved to be the case with him converting Gibbs’s cross to give Arsenal the lead.
While Giroud proved a very handy plan B v Sunderland, there are other scenarios in which he’d be a great Plan A from the start of the match. This would be against compact sides who defend deep and rarely commit more than three or four men to an attack, and tend to frustrate Arsenal. Examples from earlier in the season include Burnley and Middlesbrough, while upcoming matches against the likes of Pulis and Mourinho may see similar tactics employed.
Matches against an opponent determined to play in this way present ideal circumstances for playing the ball up to Giroud as he occupies static defenders, before flicking it on into a dangerous area for a midfield runner to get onto.
Giroud’s lack of pace means he’s not most conducive to some of the breakaway chances Arsenal fashioned in the first 65 minutes of the game against Sunderland, most notably with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, and Coquelin running through on goal. This was evident in the Euros when he had the whole of the opposition half to run into vs Germany.
However, that’s not to say that Giroud would be a spare part in Arsenal’s sweeping counter-attacks, as there is plenty of evidence throughout his Arsenal career of him playing key roles in goals of this kind, such as Aaron Ramsey’s at Villa away last season and at Swansea away 13/14.
Given that Wenger himself said “this week he is back to sharpness” of his striker, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start against Ludogorets tomorrow night, allowing Alexis a rest ahead of Sunday’s North London Derby.